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Posts Tagged ‘Soile Isokoski’

My three or four reader (I guess by now I can say five or six) may remember how much I disliked Andreas Kriegenburg’s production of Verdi’s Otello for the Deutsche Oper, but I guess they would understand why I saw it again when they learn that Soile Isokoski was taking the role of Desdemona. Other than that, I would say this evening’s rather Wagnerian cast (it features a Siegmund, a Mime and a Wotan), if not sensational, is an improvement on the original one. My previous experience with Clifton Forbis was limited to the roles of Siegmund and Tristan, where a stentorian and very powerful high register finally compensated a rather curdled middle-register and the absence of seamless legato. Although Otello is a role for a dramatic tenor, it is one that occasionally requires sustained ascents to notes as a high b natural. In that sense, Forbis was no disappointment, he generally dispatched big high a’s and b flat’s with very little effort, but the the lack of flowing and tonal beauty is a problem difficult to overlook in this repertoire. He also has to work hard to scale down below mezzo forte and is not really specific about the Italian text. He seemed a bit at a loss in Kriegenburger’s staging in which the title role has less profile than some of the extras who have their own parallel plots.

I have often written that Mark Delavan’s strength in his Wagnerian roles lies in the noble quality of his bass-baritone. It is true that this is not necessarily advantage for Iago, but I have to confess that this was probably the best performance I have heard from him in a while. He was in very good voice and proved to be more comfortable with some awkwardly written high notes than some famous exponent of the roles, not to mention that he found no problem in the mezza voce and the clear articulation without which the role is helplessly generic. His stage performance turned around playing the bad-guy-and-loving-it, but the contrast with his velvety, “honest sounding” singing gave some depth to his Iago.

Soile Isokoski’s light-toned, fast-vibrato-ish, almost Mozartian Desdemona had an endearing old-style appeal about it. She sang with great affection, rock-solid technique, immaculate musicianship and is capable to produce her own version of Italianate chest voice for the most outspoken scenes. Her soprano is a couple of sizes smaller than the role, but this valuable Finnish singer masters the almost forgotten art of projecting without forcing or weighing the tone. Curiously, she seemed rather economic with her pianissimi and saved it for a haunting conclusion of her Ave Maria.  I owe Liane Keegan an apology: when I saw the première of this production, I could not help to notice that her Emilia was impressively sung and acted, but forgot to write about it. This time, I found her even more eloquent and expressive.

Donald Runnicles’s conducting is the opposite of Patrick Summers last year – the Deutsche Oper’s musical director offered an almost Straussian performance, with clear, transparent textures and unfailing sense of establishing tempi that allowed perfect balance between forward-movement and polish, but all that did not prevent the performance from lacking punch: the result was often well-behaved and ultimately undramatic. In any case, the audience did not seem to be really into catharsis this evening – the symphony of coughs that presided over softer dynamics must have been testing for the poor musicians trying to produce lustrous pianissimo effects, not to mention that Desdemona’s “post-mortem” lines provoked a collective episode of hilarity. Since 1604, poor Desdemona has been saying “O, falsely, falsely murder’d!” after having been smothered by her jealous husband, but it seems literature is not a subject in German schools anymore.

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If this evening’s performance of Wagner’s Lohengrin in the Vienna State Opera could be counted as a success, this would be almost entirely Leif Segerstam’s doing. I have not heard from this Finnish conductor for a long while and last time I heard about him it was not really quite thrilling.  This evening, the word “thrilling”, however, is quite well-chosen. I have never heard the Vienna State Opera Orchestra produce sounds in this level of opulence, while retaining its hallmark crystalline pianissimi and clarity. Throughout the opera, the orchestra was placed in the center of events, including in dramatic aspects – rather than producing the atmosphere, it carried the story-telling. The Ortrud/Telramund scene in act II was exemplarily conducted in its motivic clarity and music-dramatic development  and the prelude to act III was one of the most exciting tours-de-force I have ever heard in an opera house.  Although the approach was rather aggressive, the virtuoso quality of the orchestral playing raised it to true distinction. The house chorus sang heartily and at moments one could believe that they would even overshadow an orchestral whose level of loudness was particularly high. It is only a pity that the right soloists have not been found to fit the concept. I am not saying that the casting was uninspired, but the fierce sounds coming from the pit demanded ample-voiced soloists with large personalities to galvanize the proceedings.

For example, Soile Isokoski’s Elsa was particularly touching. Her young-sounding delicate, almost virginal soprano floats rather than flashes. Based on a solid technique, this singer has the rare ability to focus instead of forcing her voice, which sounds invariably pleasant to the ears. Her phrasing is musicianly and sensitive and her sense of pitch is flawless. Her whole method fits the directorial choice of showing Elsa as a blind, meek woman whose fragility is quite touching. The ascent from object of compassion to object of grace is too much for a neglected woman who is no longer able to believe in miracles.  But Segerstam is telling another story – and the delicate colours of Isokoski’s Elsa are often dazzled by the formidable scale of his approach. Waltraud Meier does have the charisma to match the presiding intensity, but the fact is that she was clearly not in good voice. Although she cunningly disguised that in a demi-tintes interpretation, this was simply impossible in the context of this performance. As a result, she was often too small-scale, barely hearable or, when she really had to sing out, such as in Entweihte Götter, that was made with alarming strain. Ain Anger’s King Henry also suffered from too velvety a tonal quality to pierce through the orchestra, his noble-sounding bass failing to produce the necessary impact under these circumstances.

When it comes to Peter Seiffert, one has to acknowledge that heavy repertoire has not spoiled this German’s tenor ability to sing the role that made him famous more or less fifteen years ago. The tone is still appealing, his phrasing is mellifluous when necessary and, if he has to work harder to achieve lightness these days, heroic top notes come more easily to him than 11 years ago as I saw him in this role in Genoa with Antonio Pappano.  All in all, it was a commendable performance, and the fact that he got a bit tired by the very end of the performance is a minor incident in an otherwise satisfying piece of singing.  Wolfgang Koch’s Telramund also seems to have improved since last year in Munich – his high register proved to be better supported this evening, making for a warmer, rounder but also powerful sound in this role’s testing tessitura. The conductor did not make things easy for him, but he faced the challenge and offered an intense, almost wild performance, forcefully sung.

Except from the interesting idea of portraying Elsa as a blind woman, Barrie Kosky’s production is rather blank in its pointless symbolism, ugly sceneries and really poor solutions for key moments, such as the scenes involving the swann and Lohengrin and Telramund’s duel in act I.

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